Environment: China: the dirty man of the East with a world to lose

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The Independent Online
China today produces only a tenth of the pollution that America inflicts on the planet. But by 2015, a rapidly-growing economy may lead to it overtaking the United States as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases.

Teresa Poole asks if it is too late to stop China turning into the world's biggest environmental disaster

In Peking, the first sign that winter is approaching is when squadrons of tricycle carts appear on the streets ferrying stacks of coal briquettes which fuel the heating stoves in the city's traditional houses. The second sign is when one washes one's face at the end of the day and the water runs off a dark grey colour. By the time the snow comes, the air is so thick with particles that the flakes act like a welcome air-cleaning system, gathering the coal dust as they fall.

"Today most Chinese cities are covered by blankets of harmful airborne particulates," said a World Bank report on China this year. Two decades of rapid economic growth have hugely improved standards of living, but at considerable cost to the environment. As well as threatening the health of the Chinese, the country's rapidly growing combustion of fossil fuels is a key component in any calculation of how to limit global climate change over the next century. But China is adamant that discussions in Kyoto will not apply to developing countries.

Across China, the main pollution culprit is coal, which provided 78 per cent of primary energy demand in 1995. According to European Commission officials, China admits that coal's contribution will not fall below 70 per cent before 2050.

At the moment, the total carbon dioxide emissions of China are about half that of the US, with the gap narrowing every year. But China rejects this approach to assessing the situation, pointing out that per capita greenhouse gas emissions now in China are just one-tenth that of the US.

Why, it asks, should a country still struggling adequately to feed and clothe millions of its people be constrained by environmental targets which the Western world did not have to contend with at a similar stage of economic development? The Europeans have some sympathy with China, unlike the US which is pressing for voluntary commitments in Kyoto.

With China embarking on socially risky reform of state enterprises, the environment is down the agenda. Asia, generally, is not in a position to earmark increased funds for the environment following the recent economic upheavals. This means that dirty industries will probably continue to find a home in the East.

In 1995, China became the world's largest producer of ozone-depleting substances, after the production of these chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons was banned in many industrial countries. China did commit itself to reducing 1996 consumption of these substances to the 1991 level, but that target was not met. Nor is it clear that China will fulfil plans to ban the use of CFCs in aerosols in 1998.

There is no doubt that China will eventually take global warming seriously, because it too has a lot to lose. According to Chinese studies, a 1 metre rise in sea levels, combined with storm surges and tides, would displace 67 million people at current population levels.

However, there is a difficulty in trying to focus minds on a problem which will not take effect for a century or more, when little is even being done to address existing horrors.

China is an environmental disaster area, as the following World Bank statistics illustrate:

Children in Shenyang, Shanghai and other big cities have blood-lead levels averaging 80 per cent higher than levels considered dangerous to mental development;

The levels of particles and sulphur in China's cities exceeds World Health Organisation and Chinese standards by two to five times;

The leading cause of death in China is now chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - emphysema and chronic bronchitis - with mortality rates five times that in the US;

In 1996, less than 7 per cent of municipal wastewater was treated;

And acid rain affects one-third of China's land area;

"Every now and again you see elements of fear in the Chinese government about the extent of the environmental damage which is done by their industry," said an EU official in town this week. But China wants help from the West - primarily technology - to help clean up the mess, if such a clean-up is to everybody's advantage.

Just as Malaysia maintains that the developed world should help pay to safeguard the remaining tropical rain forests, in the 21st century China may start making the same demands over measures to scale back its greenhouse gases.